Miranda Lambert on Her Hardest, Riskiest, and Most Rewarding Music

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Miranda Lambert had a grin plastered on her face for nearly her whole performance at Chicago’s Windy City Smokeout in August, as she ran through seven albums’ worth of rowdy and touching country hits. But when I call her the day after, her spirits are lower. She’d just cleaned out her tour bus, affectionately named Elvira, for only the second time in her career (the first was two years prior, for the pandemic), to gear up for Velvet Rodeo, her upcoming Las Vegas residency at Planet Hollywood. It’s a big change for the 38-year-old star, who’s used to touring arenas around the world. “I’ve been on a bus since I was 19 years old, and I’ve never gone to work without getting off the bus,” she says. “So I’m a little sad right now, but I’m also excited because it’s a new chapter. And I’m also a little bit tired of sleeping [while] moving after all these years.”

But don’t confuse Lambert’s residency for settling down. She’s eager to perform at a new level, with the kind of costume changes, set pieces, and pyrotechnics that have rarely been part of her show. “At some point you have to do something different,” she says. That’s what’s kept Lambert’s career exciting more than 20 years in, both for fans and herself. In April, she released her seventh studio album, Palomino, which shifts from light-on-its-feet country-pop to foot-stomping honky-tonk music. It was an 180-degree turn from the previous year’s release, The Marfa Tapes, a stunningly raw collection of acoustic songs cut with singer-songwriter Jack Ingram and producer Jon Randall — even if Palomino contained some of the same songs, dusted off and polished up. And those are just the latest risks in a career that began with Lambert fighting to write her own songs, and includes a hit single about domestic abuse, three records with an all-women supergroup, and a post-divorce double album. It’s a surprising trajectory, even to her. “That’s been so on my mind ever since the Vegas conversation started: I was like, How do I go from Kerosene to Palomino?” says Lambert, who earned her first award for Entertainer of the Year from the Academy of Country Music in May.

Of course, Lambert’s already looking ahead to the next thing: returning to the road post-Vegas next year. “Elvira’s fine,” she assures me at the end of our call. “She’s going to take a nap and get some new cabinets, and I’ll be back on her next year.” Ahead of Velvet Rodeo, which kicks off September 23, Lambert looked back on her career, including her favorite songs, biggest risks, and most rewarding moments.

Song you fought to add to the Vegas setlist

I think the ones I was on the fence about are always the new ones. I went and did a recon trip, I call it. We went to Vegas to see three shows. We went to see George Strait, we went to see Shania, and we went to see Brooks & Dunn. I was just wanting to get a feel. One thing I really took away from that was they played all the songs I wanted to hear. In fact, they couldn’t get them all in because there’s so many hits. I realized that part of this Vegas show is, Give the people what they want. I mean, they come in to see you because they’ve been a fan for a while and it’s a staple in their trip. I know that there’s songs that I’m tired of that have to be in the set. I wasn’t disappointed when I heard every B&D song I wanted them to play.

Favorite new song to play live

I love “Actin’ Up.” I’ve had a great time with that one. I’m always testing the waters. I’m like, Are there too many new ones? Are people going to be over it? We had made that decision for the Bandwagon tour, with Little Big Town, to open with “Actin’ Up,” and the first night I was like, I hope this works. It really did. That’s one of those songs that people were singing before they knew it. Sometimes songs on the records just pop out on their own, without being a single or whatever. I usually come out with guns blazing, but “Actin’ Up” has this build, and it’s been fun to do that.

Song that should’ve been a single

I always say that I’m going to put a record out one day called The Ones That Got Away because there’s some that have broken my heart. “Dead Flowers” is an example. It was a single, and I wrote it by myself. I did a video. The label pulled it from radio in the 40s, because they were scared that it wasn’t going to make it. My band, every tour they’re like, “Can we do ‘Dead Flowers’?” I guess I have a little bit of a grudge against it, because I’m like, Damn it. It makes me mad that it didn’t get a shot, but I’m still proud of it because I love it.

Then some, like “Tequila Does” — that song just did its own damn thing. It wasn’t a single. We did it twice, and the second take was it. It’s so much fun, because it’s a huge song in my set. I have one of those careers that some songs just pick themselves to stand out. I like to watch that happen. Kind of like “Actin’ Up” is now. “Strange” is my radio single, but all the streaming services prefer “Actin’ Up.” The more the merrier to me. I don’t care anymore. I just have had such a weird relationship with radio this whole time anyway. I actually prefer for radio and the label to tell me what they think, because I want it to work. Then the streaming services pick their own thing. I would like for as many of these songs to be heard, whatever way they can be. Why not? Nowadays, too, the singles on the country radio take so long. I mean, “Settling Down” took 11 months to get to the top five, and I’m like, Well then, that just shoved out other songs because there’s not time. So I’m all about however they can be heard, let’s put them out there.

Song that’s changed in meaning

I think a lot of my ballads have evolved for me. I was thinking about “To Learn Her” and how when you write a song, that’s where you are in your life. But then, in a happier place right now, I think about it from other people’s perspective. The song evolves into, I’m singing this to my friend now who’s going through a really hard time instead of it being my personal life at this moment. I’ve learned to do that with my own songs recently. I think Bob Seger is who taught me. I’ve heard all those Bob Seger songs my whole life, and listening to him trying to find inspiration for writing and who I am as an artist now, I just hear things differently. I hear some of the Fogerty stuff differently, I hear some of the Haggard stuff differently. You sing along to the words when you’re 18, but when you’re 28, it’s like, Oh, this is a different meaning. Then you’re 38 and you’re like, Oh, there’s a whole different level to this.

I was listening to Greenlights, Matthew McConaughey’s book, on our road trip in our Airstream, me and my husband. He was saying some pretty brilliant things about how he journaled everything and now he has all this to write a book. My husband’s like, “Do you ever journal?” I was like, “Yeah, it’s my records. That is my journal.” I was 18 when I wrote Kerosene. That whole record was the snapshot of where I was as a human. I consider all of these records and songs as documenting my life.

Album that has to be heard front to back

That’s a hard one. I truly think Revolution, because Revolution set me up for a different journey. I needed to step it up a level, and I didn’t know how to do that. My first two albums, I was getting a little bit pigeonholed: firebrand, any word that had to do with flame or fire or pistol. It was every article and every interview. I had so much more to me, and I was like, How do I get out of this, but still keep that? Because part of that is why I’m even having a career, but it’s not all I am. So Revolution, I think I was very mindful about what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. It really kicked my career into gear.

I’m still a hopeless romantic about making albums and wanting people to listen in sequence and all that stuff. I think all of us that are old-school like that are still fighting that fight. Especially with Palomino: It’s this road trip with these characters, and it’s a whole map.

Best song for a breakup

Well, if you’re heartbroken about it, then probably “More Like Her.” That one’s just a gut-wrencher. But if you’re pissed, then there’s a lot. I mean, I can’t tell you how many people, girls, come up to me and say, “Your Kerosene record got me through a terrible breakup.” I mean, “Mama’s Broken Heart” is the staple I would pick if I was pissed and wanted to break stuff and get drunk and be mad at my ex.

I, for a while, did this set where I would end with a fiery one and then go down and do a couple ballads, like “House That Built Me” and “Dark Bars.” I had to switch it, because I would do “Mama’s” before “House That Built Me,” and always girls would start fighting in the front row, and then they’d still be fighting through my ballad. And I’m like, All right, we’re going to have to put “House That Built Me” somewhere else because they don’t get over it quick enough.

Best drinking song

I have so many. That’s what country music is, heartbroken drinking. Probably “Tequila Does.” It’s just fun. A lot of times people throw little airplane bottles of tequila up onstage; I always like that. It’s one of those good ol’ honky-tonkers to me.

I found it very interesting for myself to do some of these songs from Marfa Tapes and then hear them come to life. I revisited some of those on Palomino. It was actually hard, because we were so used to the Marfa versions, and Jon Randall was a co-producer on this record. We’d heard “In His Arms” so many times, just around the fire. So figuring out the key and the tempo and everything was a process. Sometimes there’s a phrase people use: People get “demo ears.” They fall in love with demos, and then somebody will go cut the song and you’re like, “But I love the demo of it.” With Marfa Tapes, I think we changed them so much that they have two different lives.

Favorite Pistol Annies moments for bandmates Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley

It’s such a passion product for me and it’s so deep in my heart, not only for the music part of it, but for the friendship part of it, the sisterhood. Ashley, man, when she sings “Beige.” I love anything Ashley sings at any time, but when she sings “Beige.” I remember me and her wrote that on an Airstream trip. That was one of the first songs where we were like, “This is a band. This isn’t for me or you.” I hadn’t even met Angaleena yet, but Annies was sort of in motion before we even knew it. Ashley’s one of those artists that you feel every word she sings. She can really get you.

I think my favorite Ang is “Lemon Drop.” That’s a solo rap for Angaleena, and it’s such a stunning song, and it’s her real story. She was really tying her muffler on with the guitar string on the side of the road and being a starving artist, single mom. Just hearing her sing it, at the very end and she says, “Thank God.” I just believe every word of what she’s saying. Those girls are so talented. I’m lucky that I get to make art with them.

Song of yours that you wish you wrote

A hundred percent “House That Built Me.” That song hit me like a brick — like, a train ran over me when I heard that song for the first time. It was a piano demo with Tom Douglas singing it, just piano and a male voice. I was like, How do they know? That’s my story. They knew because it’s everybody’s story, and that’s why that song is what it is. I think Allen Shamblin and Tom Douglas both told me that they had revisited it for seven years to get to where it landed. I’m so glad they did, because it’s actually perfect.

I’m so thankful for that song. I sing it every night and I watch people cry. I cry once a tour, at least — especially if I’m playing in Dallas, because my family’s there. I think any songwriter that you ask right now, they have that on their top-ten list of songs they wish they’d written. It’s just so vivid, and parts of it are part of all of our childhood. But my guitar player for so long, who I lost this year, Scotty Wray — the first time he heard it, I was saying, “Isn’t this just everyone’s story?” He goes, “No. I wish I had that house. I wish that was my story.” I’d never thought about it like that. There’s a whole different meaning when you listen to it from someone that didn’t have that. It made me cry when he said that. I think that’s the power of “The House That Built Me.” It brings out so much emotion.

Hardest song to write

Anything written by yourself is not as fun as drinking with a bunch of friends and writing songs, because it’s all you. There is nobody to blame it on. There’s nowhere to run. What song going down was pretty hurtful that I can think of recently was “They’ve Closed Down the Honky Tonks.” I haven’t recorded it. I just put out an acoustic version of it. I was writing it in the middle of the lockdown. I cleaned off my tour bus. That was the only other time I’ve ever cleaned off my tour bus besides today. It was very real. So writing that song, I was thinking of all my friends. It was just a reality I never thought I would be living in. It wasn’t about heartbreak from a man or my fiery stuff. It was like, I don’t have a gig anymore. There’s no music. This is crazy. In what world would you ever dream that up? I think it made all of us appreciate what we do so much more, because we all get burnt out and we’ve been doing it forever. I really think that one was one of the hardest to write, because I was feeling every line of it as it was going down.

I hadn’t written at all during the pandemic until that song. It was one of the things where I’m having a standoff with my guitar. I’m like, “Are we going to do this again, or what’s happening?” But I went in the bathroom. I have a little tub area with a chair and a fireplace at my farm, and my husband and I were living there. I was like, “Don’t come in here. I’m going to go have a fight with myself and see if I can write this song.” I didn’t even want to write it, because that made it more real to me, but I came out and played it for him an hour later. It went down pretty fast because I was living in it. He was like, “Damn. Well, you said you hadn’t written in a while, but let’s say you just did it. You did it, babe.” Yeah, that one was a hard one.

Her husband Brendan’s favorite song

I don’t know. I’m going to walk here and ask him right now, because I want to know now. [Puts phone on speaker.] Hey, babe.

Brendan McLoughlin: Yeah.

Miranda Lambert: Question.

BM: Shoot.

ML: What is your favorite song of mine?

BM: Probably the one that you showed me that was a deep cut of yours. “Dead Flowers.”

ML: Well, lookee there. We have another “Dead Flowers” fan. We just talked about “Dead Flowers.” That’s why it’s funny that you said that. The one that got away. [Takes phone off speaker.] He’s always like, “I like the ones you write by yourself.” I’m like, “Of course you do, because it’s hard for me.”

Award that meant the most

I have two answers. Winning my first Female Vocalist of the Year, I was handed that by Loretta Lynn on the CMAs stage [in 2010]. That moment is burned in my brain: what I was wearing, how I felt. I was just so wide-eyed. I could not believe it was happening that way. That moment will forever stick out as a really important one for me.

Entertainer of the Year this year was something I kind of gave up on. Not in a bad way; I just didn’t think it was going to happen. I had had some years that I’d been nominated that I thought that I was at the peak, and if I didn’t get it, then maybe it wasn’t supposed to happen. I’ve been so blessed in award shows and my peers voting for me. Album of the Year always means everything to me. That encapsulates my whole career. So I was like, It’s fine. I don’t have to have Entertainer. I like to be nominated because I want to represent for the girls, but it’s okay. Then, the first time I missed the ACMs in 17 consecutive years, I win it. I was like, Are you kidding me? Hardly any females have won it, and I’m not waving that flag because I’m sick of that conversation, but it’s just a fact and it’s really hard to get. So I didn’t process it at first because I was like, This is happening now and I’m in London? It just felt so crazy. But I take that very seriously. This year, I have a residency and a record, and I feel like I want to uphold that title. I want to work harder. It actually just came last week, and I opened it and I was like, This is a weight that I need to make sure that I honor. Country music’s such a family, and the fact that your family voted for you and was like, “We think you’ve earned this this year,” it does feel like responsibility.

Biggest risk

Maybe “Gunpowder & Lead.” That’s what came to mind first, because abuse is not something everyone talks about. I think I learned that from Loretta. I mean, she wrote “The Pill” when you weren’t supposed to be talking about that stuff.

And The Marfa Tapes was something completely different: nowhere to hide, raw and real. I guess it didn’t feel as much of a risk at this point in my career, but I wouldn’t have ever thought I would’ve put out a record like that before. But I think after all of this time, reinventing is the way to keep going. You can’t just keep doing “Mama’s Broken Heart” and “Little Red Wagon.” I want to keep growing and keep evolving. Those parts are always going to be there, and that’s such a staple of who I am as an artist, but what you sing at 17 is different than what you sing at 37. Having such a long career, that’s what I set out to do. My parents, they were like, “What’s your goal?” I was like, “I just want to be able to play forever, and I want to have music that says something.” So I feel so lucky that I could still be talking to you about all of this stuff and still giving them hell.

“Dead Flowers” peaked at No. 37 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart. “To love her is to learn her / Some things you just can’t learn,” Lambert sings, on the song written after her divorce from Blake Shelton. Lambert earned her first No. 1 country song and Grammy Award for the album’s single “The House That Built Me.” She also won her first CMA and ACM awards for Female Vocalist of the Year off the album. Lambert performed the song in a 2021 documentary about The Marfa Tapes. Lambert had been nominated for Entertainer of the Year five times at the ACMs and five times at the CMAs before winning on her sixth ACM nomination. Which Lambert won for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Revolution, Four the Record, Platinum, and The Weight of These Wings at the ACMs, plus Revolution and Platinum at the CMAs.
Miranda Lambert on Her Riskiest and Most Rewarding Music